A certain player catches your eye after the whistle blows. He fearlessly gives a few shoves to the face of the opponent team's captain, rather indignantly, and you feel a little tingle in your spine. A few shifts later, you see him throw his body in the face of a booming point shot on the penalty kill, and this time, you can't ignore what you're feeling anymore-- the delicate blossoming of feelings for a new favourite player.
As my childhood hero Julie Andrews so wisely crooned, though we may like many things in life, there inevitably are a few that we love more, so much that we call them our favourites.
This is not a word to be tossed around lightly-- choosing a favourite is an important decision, and whether it's a choice made with careful deliberation or realized subconsciously through time, whom you pick will not only say a lot about you but heavily influence your experience as an Oilers fan. Do you want to receive stares of contempt for remaining a steadfast Nikita Nikitin fan, or hear praises for your borderline hipster choice of Alberta boy Brandon Davidson? Are you ready to carry the emotional and political baggage of keeping Taylor Hall as your favourite, or be prepared to defend your man with stats and projections as a Griffin Reinhart fan?
For those newer to the team, choosing a solid favourite player is even more important, as it will play a hand in determining how deeply you immerse yourself in the Oilerverse. Some may (astutely) point out that perhaps it's not even the best idea to attach yourself emotionally at all to a hockey team like this, but a love of the Oilers is the best kind of love-- completely irrational and inexplicably uncontrollable, for better or worse.
Ultimately, it will most likely come naturally to you, whether instantaneously or gradually. For those on the fence, needing a new favourite after the departure of an ex-Oiler (yes, there is room in your heart to love again, lurking Taylor Hall fans), or perhaps looking to add another favourite (polygamy is perfectly okay here), here's a handy dandy guide to support you in your search for a favourite Oiler.
Factor #1: Skill
You can be forgiving, you can be an blind Oilers optimist, but ultimately, it's hard to cheer for a player who is simply bad at hockey. So often in many sports, there are cult favourites that fans just simply adore, but beyond the gregarious personalities and relatable authenticity that accents their character, they are still at the minimum average players with great flashes of skill and effort. If baseball has Bartolo Colon and Joe Biagini, hockey has Jaromir Jagr and Eddie Lack-- lovable as they may be, these guys are good players, whether due to an abundance of talent, effort, or both. There's probably a reason there are no kids holding "Iiro is my Hero" posters, or why Rexall Place was never overflowing with Tyler Pitlick jerseys night after night.
Your player might give wonderfully awkward interviews, or have the most artfully cultivated beard in the world, but if they suck on a nightly basis and do nothing for, or even hinder your team, your hatred for him will vastly overpower any goodwill that bodacious facial hair may have built up. Try to make sure they are fundamentally at least an average player because if not, you're in for a painful ride-- even as an Oilers fan, it sucks to lose, and it sucks even more when it's because of your favourite player. Especially once you start liking a player, you watch every night hoping they will do something great, making it even more painful when they repeatedly do the exact opposite of that. I would know-- I was a Victor Fasth fan. For three days.
Top recommendations: Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Oscar Klefbom
Factor #2: Status in organization/outlook
"My favourite player is the future of the team! Our bond is forever, and he will be an Oiler for life!"
You may say that now, but tell that to the poor guy still awkwardly sporting his $200 Magnus Paajarvi jersey, or the lady wondering how much longer her Yakupov jersey will be relevant for. Hockey is a fickle business, and we can never really get in the heads of what the GM will do, even less so when that GM was Craig MacTavish. But if you want your affection for your favourite to not be snatched from your mercilessly with no warning, try to be somewhat realistic for a moment about the future longevity of your potential favourite player on the team. Fans build deep bonds with their favourite player over time, and it truly is an emotional blow to see them leave, whether willingly or through a trade.
Logically speaking, if the player was a first overall pick, seen as a franchise player, and was your team's top scorer for most of the past few seasons, chances are your affection is well-placed and they will be sticking around for a few seasons. Of course, this logic does not apply if Taylor Hall happens to be your favourite player, in which case you are just very unlucky and I wish you well as you sob in a corner.
But usually, there are many ways to read the tea leaves and gauge the outlook of a player in the organization. On every team, there will be players you see and ask, "how are they still on this team?" having seen their name and the word "trade" in headlines so many times you sometimes believe it had happened already. Typically, unless you've already invested in this player, it is a bad idea to commit at this point-- for example, if you've been a long-time fan of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, you're used to the emotional turbulence by now, especially around trade deadline, but if you're simply someone who saw Nugey at his Esprit signing last month and are flirting with the idea of making this baby-faced wonder your #1 favourite, you may want to think things through first.
Gritty third-liners tend to be a toss-up, sometimes showing surprising longevity like Matt Hendricks, sometimes inexplicably expendable like Boyd Gordon. Fringe players and mid-level prospects can disappear with nary a mention in the media, or stick around for ages in and on the cusp of the team-- it's a high risk, high reward move, as it becomes that much more satisfying when a prospect you've been cheering on for a long time finally cracks the team and has a breakthrough season (see Factor #7), but nothing is a lock. There's also the possibility that fringe player cracks the big leagues but remains mired in perpetual mediocrity, and you only have one goal to celebrate for the entire season-- I'm looking at you, that one loyal Anton Lander fan out there.
Even stud young players you consider a lock for the next few years can unexpectedly be flipped for a player of disparate potential. Look into the eyes of any P.K. Subban fan from Montreal and you will see the residual horror etched on their soul from the events of June 29, 2016. In short, because of the existence of GMs with questionable skill, nobody is truly safe, but you can still try to weigh the risk and reward as much as you can.
Of course, you can follow your favourite player to his new team, but that can have drawbacks, too. What if he is dumb and decides to become a Flame? I, myself, am the constant victim of liking players who leave the team roughly four weeks after I make them my favourite, leading me to believe I may actually be a witch who unintentionally curses all my favourite athletes. This pattern led to a situation in which I at one point was following six NHL teams at the same time--none of which made the playoffs, leading me to add additional playoffs teams (you see what I mean about the witch theory?). If you like having any semblance of a life beyond hockey, this is generally not a good situation to be in.
Top Recommendations: Connor McDavid, Milan Lucic, Oscar Klefbom
Factor #3: Health
The date was December 11, 2015. The Oilers were doing well for the first time in seemingly ages, rolling into Manhattan to face the Rangers on a four-game win streak in a year when fans had to be reminded what the word "win streak" meant beyond contributing to those of opposing teams. With about five minutes left in the second period, Oscar Klefbom knocked Chris Kreider into the boards, and fans were nonchalantly like, "Klefbom is a beast, hooray." Everything was fine; the offense was churning, the season was looking up, the Oilers were even leading the shot count by 14-6 that period. Too fine, apparently, for a team like the Oilers, who have had the fortune of experiencing absolutely no good fortune in the past few years; after the commercial break, the Most Odious Replay of All Replays ™ showed Klefbom apparently the victim of a strange hand injury as Kreider's skate made contact with Klefbom's hand as he went down.
Though I was physically breathing, I held my metaphorical breath for an unhealthy amount of time, hoping the Oilers' young defenseman having a breakout season on a team already thin on the blueline wouldn't be sidelined for long. The articles and Tweets came, spewing lies like this and this. My blind optimism allowed me to believe Klefbom would be back by Boxing Day, and fans waited as we imagined the Klefbom knuckle was doing the, you know, healing thing. Boxing Day came and went. New Year's Eve and Day came and went. The next thing you know, the whole season had come and gone, largely downhill, and still no sign of Klefbom, who essentially became a 6'3, Swedish version of Barb.
My friends, I know what it's like to have your favourite player snatched by a freak injury. Soon, I knew more about Staph Infections than I ever cared to, and saw some rather unsavoury photos in my feeble research attempts. I learned in the process to never ever, under any conditions, start one's medical research on Google Images.
Of course injuries happen in sports-- if I can injure my hand attempting to open a stubborn Aquafina waterbottle, hockey players are going to get their fair share of bumps and bruises along the way. As we can see with the Klefbom situation, even the most healthy young players can suffer from an improbable amount of bad luck. And while I'm not advocating coldly removing affection for any players with a history of concussions or back injuries, it's not a bad idea to factor in injury-proneness when picking a favourite player because it simply sucks immensely when your favourite player gets injured; the little rush you get from seeing that familiar number jump on the ice for their shift gone, the anticipation for even a pre- or post-game interview gone as they seemingly disappear off the face of the earth for days, weeks, or even months. Your little morsel of human affection, which you prized as if it were a gleaming diamond, suddenly transforms into a snowball in the heat of summer, melting in your fingers and dissolving away as you watch powerlessly.
Try to avoid choosing someone who seems to have boneitis and gets hurt just by standing on a slippery surface while wearing skates--Leafs fans probably worry more about Joffrey Lupul than about actual people in their actual life. You might want to reconsider choosing older players like Andrew Ference, who gives me the impression that his limbs are hardly being held together by staples. It's also smart to cheer for players who never instigate and fleetingly avoid and all physical contact with ninja-like precision, like Jordan Eberle, whom my roommate Nicole likes to call "the Softest Human on Earth."
Recommendations: Leon Draisaitl. Darnell Nurse. That's pretty much it, because seemingly every other human on the team got injured last year. Todd McLellan?
Factor #4: Looks
I know what you're thinking-- this goes against everything I believe in, putting looks before personality. Don't worry, I know you are highly principled and would never be okay with any superficiality in real life, but in the world of hockey fandom, it's kind of okay to do so. For most of the time you're watching your favourite player, you-- and that's exactly it, let's just stop right there. You're watching your favourite player. We've already established the importance of skill-- the main other source of exposure you'll get of your favourite player is probably those close-ups in between whistles. Why not, for the sake of your own eyes, which, let's be honest, see a lot of awful things over the course of a day, be kind to them for those 150 minutes and pick someone easy on the eyes?
When you have a favourite player, they become almost an extension of yourself. Their success is your glory-- their failure, your anguish-- their attractiveness, your boost by association. At some point, their handsome glitter may even rub off on you!
Another unforeseen benefit of factoring looks into the equation is having an entirely superficial but completely valid last line of defense when being attacked by other fans. When some pesky Leafs fan starts making fun of Draisaitl for a bad giveaway and an untimely penalty, in your rebuttal, you can defend his skill but make sure to also mention his unwavering handsomeness and nice hair-- this will score you major points in the debate (please don't actually try this).
Top Recommendations: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right?
Factor #5: Personality
Though Nail Yakupov may never live up to the hype of a first overall selection, he will forever be a fan favourite due to moments like this:
All I am thinking now is how incredible it would be if that could become the new Oilers goal song for next season, and all fans would sing this melody in uplifting unison multiple times a game. I believe this would be a great advancement in our collective quest for world peace and happiness.
All players have a personality, of course, but some are simply more comfortable with and better at expressing it in the brief moments we see hockey players as humans, and not vikings on skates-- the most popular players tend to be those who are able to show their personality, whether that be through a perpetually gregarious smile or disarming sense of humour. When you like a player, you don't just like the package of stats they're reduced to on the roster page; you like the little quips they make during media scrums, the cheeky moments between whistles, the anecdotes about his friendly interactions with fans.
If you are into smiles, then maybe you'll be more interested in a Jesse Puljujarvi, an emerging member of the Smile League, than a Leon Draisaitl, who looks like he's being fed a diet of bittermelon for every meal (I say this in the most loving way possible). If you are into jokes, then maybe I can interest you in a Matt Hendricks or Patty Maroon instead of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who seems like the type of person who would respond to a Yo Mama joke by slapping you.
Personalities shine for different reasons-- the precocious gravity of Connor McDavid, the down-to-earth affability of Brandon Davidson, the relatable workmanlike mein of Matt Hendricks-- there's a type for every fan, and what you choose says a lot about you-- who you are, who you'd like to be, which traits you admire in people. Even extremely annoying people like Brad Marchand attract their share of fans, albeit likely extremely annoying fans.
Top Recommendations: Nail Yakupov, Patrick Maroon, Matt Hendricks
Factor #6: Grit and Other Intangibles
In hockey, fans and GMs will often speak of the "intangibles" a player brings to the team. What does this really mean? I don't really know, and in all likelihood, neither does anyone. You can define it yourself, and if say it enough times and have enough confidence to back it up, it somehow becomes a real thing.
Words often associated with intangibles include generally undefinable traits like "hustle" and "heart," and sometimes made-up prophecies like "Norris potential." From my observations, hustle and heart seems to happen when certain players visibly try harder than others and put in a really obvious amount of effort, no matter the result, and frequently "get down and dirty," particularly "in the corners" and "along the boards." The best way to display hustle and heart is playing while one or more (preferably many) of your limbs are broken, or teeth missing-- I've yet to see a player resolve to get on the ice with no teeth and no connected limbs, but when this happens, he is sure to get major hustle and heart points.
Grit is another one of those terms tossed around casually, but one I can kind of get behind because it's easier to see it actually play out in the behaviors of different players. If this kind of thing matters to you, and your forehead vein pops whenever you see a player standing limp while getting shoved in the face, or skating away as his teammates are being attacked after a whistle, you may want to reconsider choosing Jordan Eberle when picking a favourite.
In the end, you choose your own intangibles-- the good thing about a favourite is it's completely at your discretion, so whether that intangible is impeccable flow or no flow whatsoever, whether you like complete sets or believe in things left beautifully incomplete, it might just end up being your own unique dealbreaker.
Top Recommendations: Zack Kassian, Milan Lucic, Matt Hendricks
Factor #7: The Indie Factor
There's a certain charm to cheering for an emerging player not many know about, even if you are cheering for Drake Caggiula solely to have your "I was into Drake before he made it big" moment. It's kind of cool when you are seemingly the only fan of a player-- if nothing else, it's like having your own special little secret, and it definitely makes you unique. What do you think when someone says their favourite player is Sidney Crosby or Jonathan Toews? You don't know, because you don't even remember these extremely unmemorable, boring people.
Picking a unique player ensures you stand out, but with this move comes its own perils. Be aware that with your indie pick, you will henceforth be known to many as "that random David Musil fan" or "the only Mark Fayne fan in the world." With great specialization comes great responsibility, and you must be prepared to absorb the character spillage that will occur when you associate yourself with a niche player. But especially if you're a Mark Fayne fan, you've clearly already ignored each of the previous six factors and don't really care about making appropriate choices in life, so you probably don't even care about any negative association that may occur.
A popular choice for indie players are average to good prospects still in the minor league or junior teams, that have not been around the edges long enough to be called a fringe player, but cannot have been drafted higher than the second round (blue chip prospects are so not indie). I'm talking the likes of Brandon Davidson (who's dangerously on the cusp of going mainstream), Jujhar Khaira, and if you're really a daredevil, Griffin Reinhart. Jordan Oesterle qualifies now. Jordan Eberle never did.
Don't just pick an indie player because it makes you look cool-- if you're a Connor McDavid kind of guy/gal, there's no point in pretending to be a Tyler Benson worshipper. That's like listening to Rage Against the Machine when you know you're really a One Directioner at heart.
Top Recommendations: Laurent Brossoit, Ethan Bear, folks listed above
Whoever your favourite ends up being, young grasshopper, the most important thing in the end is to acknowledge it and wear your choice with pride. Most often the choice will be natural, a beautiful inevitability, and I hope you devote our heart to a player worthy of your affection-- through good and bad, acknowledging their failings, feeling their pain, and letting a wonderful sense of pride wash over you when they do well.
In the second part of this series, I will run down my top choices for Mr. Favourite Oiler 2017, using the above criteria. Let us know who your favourite player is, and why, in the comments below!